TENNERTON – Bill Hamilton’s first legislative session as a senator was, in a word, “successful,” he said last week.
Hamilton, who spent more than a decade in the House of Delegates prior to being elected to represent the 11th Senatorial District, highlighted some of the highs and lows of the 2019 regular legislative session during an interview with My Buckhannon.
He said he’s pleased that about 25 bills he either co-sponsored or was the lead sponsor on had either passed and were awaiting Gov. Jim Justice’s signature or had already been signed into law.
“My session went very well,” he said. “I guess it was a tumultuous session over in the House, and we had a little bit of one [in the Senate]. I found there’s a lot more camaraderie between the parties – Republicans and the Democrats – in the Senate that I never experienced before.”
The Senate passed two bills on which Hamilton was the lead sponsor, one of which the Upshur County Commission had asked him to run, he said.
Senate Bill 295, which was co-sponsored by Sen. Greg Boso, R-Nicholas, who also represents the 11th Senatorial District, takes steps to protect the safety of court security personnel. Specifically, it criminalizes obstructing, fleeing from, disarming or attempting to disarm court security personnel and correctional officers while they’re acting in their official capacity.
“The county asked me to run the bill because the court security people did not get the same accommodations if they were assaulted by a prisoner or somebody in the audience, etc., as a deputy did,” Hamilton said.
The bill goes into effect June 7, 2019.
Hamilton was also the lead sponsor on SB 544, which had originally proposed increasing the salaries of West Virginia State Police officers over a three-year period but was ultimately amended to a 5 percent increase over one year.
“We wanted a $3,000 raise the first year, $3,000 raise the second year, $3,000 the third year, and the House changed it to a 5 percent raise in one year,” Hamilton said. “They didn’t want to do three years. They had concerns about the budget that, ‘could we afford it?’ but on the other hand, we gave the coal companies $20 million the first year, $40 million the second year and $60 million the third year … severance tax … and the governor signed that.”
Hamilton co-sponsored another bill related to incentivizing state police officers to remain employed in West Virginia, he said.
Senate Bill 539 modified the multiplier used to calculate state police’s pension in the W.Va. State Police Retirement System Plan B from 2.75 to 3 percent.
“Now, the years of service times 3 percent (multiplier) times your last five years salary average is retirement income,” Hamilton said. “The reason we ran that one is because they’ve got a problem retaining [officers].
“Once you get a trooper trained, he stays six or seven years, and then he goes someplace else – he goes to Maryland or Virginia or Ohio … so we were trying to do something to give them a carrot out there to make sure that we keep troopers that we’re training instead of training them for another department or another state.”
There are also a couple bills Hamilton co-sponsored he’d like his constituency to know about, and one of them is SB 393, which protects people’s rights to farm.
“It’s simple,” he said. “It’s just about protecting the right to farm where we’ve had the Environmental Protection people from D.C. coming in and saying, ‘this farm is polluting streams, etc.’ That’s all it’s doing is protecting people’s right to farm.”
Notes attached to the bill state its purpose is to protect farm and agricultural operations from “nuisance litigation” if the farm or facility has been up and running for at least a year.
Effective June 3, Hamilton said he thinks it’s relevant to the seven-county 11th senatorial district because farming is relatively widespread in Pendleton, Grant, Pocahontas and Upshur counties.
However, Hamilton said he’s also proud to have sponsored two bills that never made it onto the books – one that the Senate Judiciary Committee wouldn’t take up and a second that the governor vetoed.
The first one dealt with trying to get what Hamilton has referred to as “dark money” out of politics.
“The one that I was really proud of that didn’t make it anywhere was the elections bill … and the Judiciary Committee in the Senate didn’t even take my bill up,” he explained. “My bill was just simply on any state PACs (political action committees) – now, you can’t do anything about federal – but on any state PACs, it said that you’ve got to show who your donors are, and of course, they didn’t address that in the [elections] bill that was passed.
“The way I look at it, it’s a matter of fairness. If you give me a dollar for my campaign, I’ve got to show where the money comes from. I got to put your name down … so if I’ve got to do and all the other 133 members of the Legislature have to conform to that, why don’t these PACs?”
Hamilton was also proud to have sponsored SB 440, which related to anti-hazing law and was vetoed by Justice due to a technicality.
It redefines hazing to apply to “any type of organization whose members include students at any public or private institution of higher education,” according to the state Legislature’s website. (W.Va. state code defines hazing as “any action or situation which recklessly or intentionally endangers the mental or physical health or safety of another person or causes another person to destroy or remove public or private property” as a condition of membership.)
So, looking back at the legislative session, how does Hamilton feel about the controversial education omnibus bill, SB 451, which eventually died in the House of Delegates?
He wouldn’t change his vote on the bill, which was intended to dramatically overhaul West Virginia’s public education system, if he could go back in time.
“I was in the minority in the majority – Senator (Kenny) Mann and I because we were two out of 20 that voted against the caucus and voted against the bill as it stood as it left the Senate,” Hamilton said. “In fact, if it comes back the same way, I’m not changing my vote in the special session.”
Hamilton said he wasn’t happy about several aspects of the all-encompassing bill championed by Senate President Mitch Carmichael and Education Committee Chair Sen. Patricia Rucker. Two of those are larger class sizes and education savings accounts.
“I didn’t like that part where the board could make the decision on the levy rate without the voice of the voters. I wasn’t in favor of that,” he said. “I’m not in favor of charter schools … they keep saying, ‘well, but we’ll have less regulation in charter schools.’ Well, then, why don’t we fix our public school system by having less regulation?”
Hamilton said in preparation for the special session Justice has called to focus solely on education, he’s been traveling to forums in various parts of the state to talk to educators and the public.
One of those was a forum in Upshur County that took place Friday, March 22 at the Presbyterian Church in Buckhannon, which was moderated by Buckhannon-Upshur high school teacher Brent Kimble.
“He gave the pros and the cons, and he said, ‘you realize, that the way that bill was written, they could take 10 percent of your county school population … to form a charter school,’” Hamilton said of Kimble. “Ten percent of our student population is 3,600 – that’s 360 kids. If you take 360 kids out of our school system and put them in charter schools, at $4,500 per child, which is the allotment, that’s $1.6 million.
“Dr. (Sara) Stankus and (Dr. Debra) Harrison – they’d be pulling their hair out if that happened – and then if the charter school goes along two years and it’s not successful, and it closes, we’ve got to take those kids back in the system, and yet they’ve already reduced staff, how are they going to accommodate them?”
Hamilton said he thinks charter schools should be given trial runs in areas that are gaining population – like Jefferson, Berkeley, Monongalia and Putnam counties – and not losing it.
“If you’re going to do charter schools, you only put charter schools in a county that has a growing student population because if you’re taking 10 percent of those kids and putting them in a charter school, even though it’s competition for the public school, you’re not going to hurt their budget because … they’re building schools. We’re consolidating and closing,” he said.
Hamilton said he’s been attending public education forums sponsored by the state Board of Education, including one on Monday, April 1, at Robert C. Byrd High School and another Wednesday, April 3, at Berkeley Springs High School in Berkeley Springs.
“We’ve got some problems in education, but all we hear about is the problems,” he said. “No one’s talking about … Jayme Lantz who just got that award and she’s one of 100 in the U.S.? Nobody else in the state? And this is little old Upshur County. They say we’re backwards, but we’re doing some grand things.”
Lantz was recently named one of “100 High School Students America Needs to Know About.”